Building trust is the key ingredient for online success at Austin Canoe and Kayak

Peter and Steve Messana are thrilled to have won Backpacker-SNEWS' Retailer of the Year Award for the Best Online Retailer, narrowly beating out Backcountry.com in a popular public voting race. The brothers share some of their ingredients for web success.
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It was probably one of the biggest upsets in Retailer of the Year history. Picture it: The Red Door. Salt Lake City. January 2012. The winner for the Best Online Retailer is about to be announced. Many eyes were on the table in the front full of folks from Backcountry.com. 

But it wasn’t meant to be for the online retail giant this year. Rather, a dark horse — Austin Canoe and Kayak — galloped in to claim the honor for Best Online Retailer, something in which brothers and owners Peter Messana (photo, right) and Steve Messana (photo, left) take great pride.

It’s not just about the award; it also validates that they’re doing right by their customers, many of whom rallied behind them to beat out Backcountry.com in the public voting on the SNEWS Facebook Fan Page.

“It’s truly an honor,” Steve Messana said. “Backcountry has an enormous selection and while I’m not a customer, I know they do a good job taking care of their customers. I have spent time browsing their site and seeing what they have to offer to take that honor away from them was really a highlight of the year for us.”

Building an online legacy

The reason their own site has been so successful, the brothers maintain, is because they always put the customer first.

Everything we put into the business is with the customer in mind, whether it be product or services that we offer,” Peter Messana said. “We’re always looking at what the customer wants and we work hard every day to keep that goal and objective in mind. We strongly believe our growth is attributed to customer service.”

The brothers have grown the business tremendously since they purchased the first location in 2005. Back then it was a 2,500 square-foot space in Austin, Texas. They soon expanded that to double the size. Six months later, they added a second location and a warehouse. Now the retail locations offer a combined 15,000 square feet of space plus the warehouse. Neither brother was comfortable disclosing an exact formula for the online store’s success, but they did offer hints on the ingredients. When they first decided to focus their efforts on their online store, they knew one thing for sure.

“We realized we had to be different from everybody else,” Steve Messana said. “That meant shipping orders the same day [we received them] and running around — literally running around — to get them out.”

Plus, they both added, focusing on how to create a user-friendly online experience for their customers was a must. That included producing their own images of products, which they're both proud of, and hosting as many customer reviews as possible. Plus, they said, they also post videos of products for users to view.

“We’re up to 11,000 reviews right now on the site,” Peter Messana said. “It’s all about getting information to the customer that makes them at ease when ordering.”

Tending the customers

Since the Austin Canoe and Kayak world revolves around the customer, one of the biggest challenges the brothers have faced over the years has been finding staff members who share the customer-focused mentality.

“We are so customer-centric,” Peter Messana said. “We have to find people whose mindset is that same way.”

Plus, the brothers said, they want “do it now” type of people: “Peter and I both have a very much, ‘do it now’ attitude — let’s get it done, let’s move on, take care of the customer,’ no matter the task or chore."

Though it remains a challenge, the pair has a staff that is 40 strong (which grew from one, not counting themselves, back in 2005). And work life is good, they said.

Working side-by-side with a relative isn’t for everybody, but the Messana brothers don’t have a problem with it. Nearly 10 years ago, the brothers, who are both lovers of the outdoors, running and bicycling, decided they wanted to go into business together. Though originally they wanted to open a cycling shop, it turned out to be a stroke of luck that didn’t work out since they’re enjoying their success with Austin Canoe and Kayak.

Peter Messana said having a successful online store is simple. Not easy, but simple.

“It’s providing that online experience that best can mimic alpine experience,” Peter Messana said, “which is building trust with a customer.”

--Ana Trujillo

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